The true story behind Arlo Guthrie’s Thanksgiving staple, “Alice’s Restaurant”

Thanksgiving is here: a time for family, friends, gravy, and Arlo Guthrie to fight their way through an 18-minute anti-war song about trash. A natural fit, right?

This is what various rock radio stations across the country seem to have concluded, as most major cities in America now have at least one station that makes a point of playing Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” every day. Thanksgiving. In my own hometown of Philadelphia, WXPN’s Helen Leicht plays it every year at noon, and in years without a pandemic, my family congregates around the radio like we’re in an old Norman Rockwell painting, tearing bread for the stuffing and chanting, “We had a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat!”

Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” originally came out in 1967 as “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” and it’s only nominally Thanksgiving, or Alice, or her restaurant. It’s a shaggy, rambling story song, in which Guthrie spends Thanksgiving (with an unbeatable dinner!) With Alice (from the restaurant), and then, as a service, tries to chase her trash to the landfill, only to find out. that the dump is closed for Thanksgiving. So he leaves the trash in a roadside trash pile and is then arrested for trash – which, when Guthrie comes before the editorial board, is why the military cites the choice not to recruit him.

“You want to know if I’m moral enough to join the military, burn women / children, houses and villages after being a litter bug,” says Guthrie, to which the sergeant replies, “Kid, we don’t. don’t like your kind. “

In Guthrie’s impassive delivery, the whole story has a feverish dreamy quality, but most of what happens is true. Guthrie’s Garbage does the local newspaper that fateful Thanksgiving of 1965, with Police Chief William J. Obanhein (the song’s officer Obie) sternly remarking that he hoped the case would serve “as an example to others who don’t care. of garbage disposal ”.

And Guthrie was, in fact, disqualified from the draft because of his arrest record. “I just couldn’t believe it,” he told NPR in 2005. “And so I turned it into a song. It took about a year to set it up, and I’ve been relating it for about.

The song Guthrie continues to sing ever since is a bit of a scathing ode to bureaucratic idiocy, to a system that values ​​conformism so much that it treats trash as an outrageous sin even as it celebrates military violence. And in the end, it becomes a protest song.

“The only reason I’m / you singing this song now is because you might know someone in a similar situation / situation, or you might be in a similar situation,” Guthrie explains. “And if you’re in a / Situation like that, there’s only one thing you can do and that’s come in / The shrink wherever you are, just say, ‘Shrink, you can get / Anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant. ‘And get out.

The song, proclaims Guthrie, will become a movement: “the Alice’s Restaurant anti-massacre movement.” A massacred is a series of absurd events, so Alice’s restaurant movement is against absurdity and in favor of reason. He is against the arrest of anyone for rubbish and in favor of an end to wars.

“Alice’s Restaurant” had its first radio in February 1967 on WBAI-FM in New York, in a live performance, and it almost immediately became a smash hit. Guthrie released a recording of another live performance in October of this year – the recording that radio stations are now playing – and it was then that the song began to become a Thanksgiving institution.

“It’s to celebrate idiocy, you might say,” Guthrie said in 2005. “I mean, thank God the people who run this world aren’t smart enough to keep running it forever.”

A particularly heartwarming feeling this year. Happy Thanksgiving.